The New York Timeslead says interest groups are preparing for an ugly battle to fill the first Supreme Court vacancy of President Bush's term, which many expect to be announced in the next several weeks. The Los Angeles Timeslead (online) is an altogether positive profile of Bechtel Group Inc., the California construction and engineering firm that won the lucrative government contract to rebuild much of Iraq's infrastructure. The Washington Post lead reports that the Bush administration has grown cold on the returned Iraqi exiles, like Ahmad Chalabi, who it had once touted as the centerpieces of a new Iraqi government. Increasingly viewed as unrepresentative of the Iraqi people and too disorganized to pull together support, the exiles are being sidelined by Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civil administrator in Iraq. "We've been marginalized and humiliated," one returning exile is quoted as saying. "We came here to help, to make a difference. Now it looks like nobody wants us."
Though none of the nine Supreme Court justices have said anything yet about retirement, an announcement of this sort would typically come at the end of the court's term in late June. Since this will be the last chance for President Bush to name a new justice before his re-election campaign gets underway, many expect that either 78-year-old Chief Justice William Rehnquist or 73-year-old Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, or perhaps even both, will call it quits later this month or next. In preparation for what could be a vicious confirmation fight, groups on both sides of the political spectrum are researching potential nominees, fund raising, and holding meetings to discuss strategy. "Neither side wants to be caught off guard in what is expected to be a fast-moving battle for public opinion," says the Times. The LAT is so certain of Rehnquist's imminent retirement that it runs a front-page piece in today's paper on the judge's conservative legacy titled, "Rehnquist Revival Near End."
The LAT's gushing piece on Bechtel could practically have been written by the company's PR department. "If you work for Bechtel," writes the author, "you think you're building a permanent piece of goodness." The company has recently come under intense scrutiny for being awarded a secretive $680 million government contract to rebuild Iraq and for its "massive cost-overruns" on the Boston "Big Dig" project, which it co-manages. However, the LAT hardly addresses the company's shady dealings and doesn't quote a single Bechtel critic. Indeed, in response to allegations of nepotism, the author barely does more than parrot the company's Web site, which dismisses allegations about "friends in high places" and rebukes journalists for "uncritically reporting innuendo from partisan organizations and political critics."
The WP off-leads with an article on the Bush administration's efforts to radically overhaul the civil service system in the name of national security. Though the administration is concentrating its efforts on reforming the pay and personnel system at the Department of Defense, "few analysts expect the changes to stop with defense-related agencies." Proposed changes at Defense include new rules that would tie pay to performance, limit collective bargaining rights, and allow new employees to be hired more quickly. Many Democrats are lukewarm about the overhaul, and the federal employees unions are downright cold to it. They argue that the new personnel system could increase political patronage in the federal bureaucracy and undermine worker morale.
The NYT off-leads with yesterday's election in New Hampshire of the first openly gay bishop to an Episcopalian diocese. According to the Times, Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson's election is "likely to roil the church" domestically and "deepen the disaffection" of more conservative Anglicans in the developing world. The WP and LAT pick their coverage of Robinson's election off the wires and stuff it inside.
The LAT scores a potentially important (if truthful) interview with a former senior Iraqi intelligence officer who U.S. intelligence apparently hasn't gotten to yet. The ex-officer, a brigadier general, claims that Iraq's biological and chemical weapons programs were effectively eliminated by U.N. sanctions in the mid-1990s, but that Saddam Hussein maintained a network of clandestine cells and laboratories to someday redevelop his unconventional weapons program. He says the U.S. weapons hunters "will never find anything here. Only oil." Though the LAT reporter acknowledges that the officer, who still claims loyalty to Saddam Hussein, might have fed him intentionally deceptive information, the reporter maintains that the level of detail he was provided gives the officer considerable credibility.
For the second profile in its series on the Democratic presidential hopefuls, the WP turns its spotlight on John Edwards, D-N.C. Last week's portrait of John Kerry revealed the Massachusetts liberal to be a Harley-riding, Andre Gide-quoting, Cessna pilot. This week's profile of Edwards is comparatively short on telling, character-establishing details. "As much as anyone in the nine-person Democratic field, Edwards is running on his autobiography," writes author David Broder. And so it is Edwards's bio—journalistically well-trodden ground—that gets rehashed. The senator's strengths: an ingratiating persona, a compassionate and appealing form of populism, and a strong fund-raising base in the trial lawyer community. His weaknesses: a dearth of executive experience ("the biggest organization he has run is his Senate staff"), a lack of foreign policy credentials, and few connections in important campaign states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
The WP reports that at least 19 people the Midwest have contracted an untreatable life-threatening disease called monkey pox, which is in the same family of viruses as smallpox but is less infectious and far less likely to be fatal. The Centers for Disease Control issued a nationwide alert to doctors and health care workers yesterday.
A pair of LAT and NYT front-page articles on drug cultivation in Latin America make for interesting complements. According to the NYT piece, Colombia and Mexico have displaced Asia as the primary supplier of heroin to the United States. The LAT helps explain why. U.S.-backed efforts to destroy Colombian coca plants through aerial fumigation have killed off 38 percent of the country's crop. Local farmers, for whom coca was once the most profitable plant, are now so afraid of having their fields destroyed that they've turned to other crops. Many of the dirt-poor farmers are ruined. Others have apparently shifted to opium poppy production. According to the WP, the opium farms are much harder to detect and fumigate than those that once grew coca.
All the papers front the defeat of national darling Funny Cide at the hooves of Empire Maker in yesterday's Belmont Stakes, ending the horse's run at the Triple Crown. With a notably undistinguished pedigree, a sympathetic jockey mistakenly accused of cheating, and an unlikely group of owners ("10 average citizens," says the WP) who purchased the horse for only $75,000, the blue-collar Funny Cide was the odds-on sentimental favorite to win yesterday's race. The WP titles its article, "Appreciated Even in Defeat."